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The Word ‘Secular’ Is The Most Twisted And ‘Communalised’ Word In Indian Politics. Here’s How

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By Pranjal Begwani:

It’s election time; well almost, with words and veiled curses flying around, massive rallies being drummed up, riots being brewed and politicians playing the game they are most adept at — ‘tu-tu, main —main’. It thus, wouldn’t need much for even the naiveté to realise where ‘secularism’ figures in this mash-up.

With Narendra Modi as BJP’s highly polarising prime ministerial face, Mulayam (yes Mulayam, and not Akhilesh- merely the pseudo CM) playing the only kind of politics he knows (read the violence in Muzaffarnagar) and the Congress rustling up the 2002 Gujarat riots to make up for the lack of a forceful PM candidate, these elections will be archetypal of sorts – more hotly ‘communalised’ or debated on ‘secular’ terms than any preceding election in independent India’s history.


But since there is a deep ‘secular’ or ‘non-secular’ spin (depending on how one chooses to look at it) to India’s contemporary political play, it is important to put the term ‘secular’ into perspective. And especially since it involves India’s national elections, the very symbol of Indian democracy — the ‘vibrant’ democracy that people like to call it, (an emotional construct more than a statement based on veracity). In any case, most of us would not be aware of what secular truly refers to. It is not what it seems to be — the simultaneous existence of a multitude of religions in a common cultural space, or what the Constitution of India would like us to believe. The Constitution is no dictionary. Open any English dictionary and you would have your answer. The word has been twisted and turned to mean something nowhere even close to its original etymology. The Oxford Dictionary defines it as ‘not connected with religious or spiritual matters’ while delineates it as ‘of or pertaining to worldly things or to things that are not regarded as religious, spiritual, or sacred’.

A word which neither pertains to, nor is connected with religion, is today India’s most thrashed around word and the most religiously tilted. Its usage is in itself an oxymoron and in fact it’s ironical how the very term ‘secular’ has been so abysmally and irreversibly communalised. Current political discourse should singe itself of words such as secular and communal. A political sphere devoid of these will lead to a country finally united in diversity, and elections fought on issues that actually matter — development, corruption, education and the aspirations of the common man yet to take flight.

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  1. Prashant Kaushik

    Nice article.

    ‘Secular’, even during its time of inception in the Indian Constitution, was defined in a distinctly different tone than what the dictionary defines. In Indian Context, ideally, it means ‘Equal protection of all Religion’ and absence of any ‘State Religion’. It was much latter, that in 1970s the ‘Secular’ word was added in our preamble. Same story is for another word ‘Socialist’ which was added around the same time. Our version of ‘Socialist’ is a different version than that of some eastern economies.

    With passage of time, the definition of secular is again twisted, as per the whims and fancies of those who need it.

    In my view, True Secular, would be some one , who will never need to speak aloud and tell whether he is secular or not.

  2. Sharanya Bose

    First: The constitution does not give an exact definition of the word secular. It calls for a secular state and ensures it through fundamental rights and other measures.
    Second: Even if it did, and the definition did not match the dictionary, that would be perfectly normal. The constitution is the law and law is full of terms that are interpreted differently form their dictionary meanings. E.g. ‘amicus curiae’ or friend of the court. Does that mean that the Supreme Court is socializing? No.
    The constitution expresses certain collective emotions for e.g the preamble itself. Secularism is thus invoked as an emotive term and that is what it is today.
    Third: In a country with a powerful majority that at times has resorted to Godhra, to 1984, to the Kandhamal incidents, you cannot have the government wash its hands off religion. It has to intervene; also public discourse cannot be free from religion, however tempting that sounds.
    You will have religion and you will have religious identity and at times an insecure religious identity. The constitution demands that this be protected.
    Having cleared the air about secularism; look at its practice: Yes, much like the word democracy it is used too often and without context. Yes, it is a shallow meaning that is invoked and this harms us and yes, the word is (mis)used to refer to particular communities and get their votes. All of this is definitely not good for us, but what is worse is if none of this took place.
    A misinformed, shallow public discourse is still better than no discourse. Guarantees even if they exist only on paper are better than no guarantees. Because if you don’t have these two, you end up in Hitler’s Germany where there is no freedom at all.
    It is shameful that our public debate is shallow but still it is there.
    Removing secularism as we know it (distorted or not), will not solve our problems. Instead it will allow the imposition of the majority identity on the minority. If politicians or news hours are distorting the meaning and practice, then fight that. Don’t run away and wash your hands off the entire concept.
    P.s: Obviously the constitution is no dictionary. You can’t run a country on the Oxford English dictionary, can you?!

    1. Pranjal Begwani

      I’m glad you have given me the chance to clear the air, and I’ll go through it with a point-by-point re-rebuttal and a deconstruction of your skilfully camouflaged fragile arguments.
      Yes, the Constitution may not have explicitly defined the word secular (for the same reason that it is no dictionary), but there is a clear undeniable implicit implication brought through its introduction in the constitution via the 42nd Amendment of 1976. Secularism, though, is as old as Indian independence, in context of the political discourse in this country. India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, incidentally under whose aegis Ambedkar went through with the Indian Constitution, believed and it is widely known that ” The first and the most essential feature of secularism was the granting of equal status to all religions in India “, which you my dear friend are so comfortably unaware of.

      Second- and yes again to the Constitution being the law of the land, it being another matter that it is heavily ambiguous in parts! But is it sacral? Or does it have mythical origins which makes it axiomatic? It is neither, but a body of laws made by people like us. If we have the power to elect our representatives to frame our Constitution, then we also have the right to demand change. Your arguments, though, with a human non-idiosyncrasy, seem inimical to ‘good change’. And when you talk about collective emotions and secularism in the same breath, you are seconding my very argument of there being an emotional construct.. And here in, in this very ’emotional constructivism’, lies the problem.

      Third, what kind of intervention are you talking about? The kind where the state creates a mountain out of a mole-hill; inflates riots and tensions when there are none! Yes there must be intervention, but strictly impartial intervention. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case in India. Are you suggesting that in the 1984 and the Godhra riots (in chronological precedence) there was no state hand at all? Then again you are very conveniently forgetting Rajeev Gandhi’s famously controversial statement in support of the ’84 riots. Rajiv Gandhi, mind you, was a symbol of the state – a member of a ruling national party and a future Prime Minister of India. And to quell any remaining ignorance, the PM is the de-facto head of the state.

      And yes it is possible, but it only seems tempting because you believe it is unachievable. But it is a pragmatic possibility. A state can be interventionist and at the same time not take religious sides. And no one is suggesting that public discourse should clear itself of religion. Again, there is a misconstrued belief in your stereotyped argument that religion and secularism can be talked about in the same breath. They cannot, and public discourse, with steps in the right direction can definitely be cleared of communalised secularism.

      And again an air of pessimism is evident, when there is a suggestion of a ‘misinformed shallow public discourse being better than no discourse’. Toeing away from your ‘minimalist line’, an informed, purged public and political discourse is better than a misinformed one. And therefore it is evident, that removing the ‘communalised version of secularism’ will stand our discourse and the country in good stead.

      A little play on your ‘run away’ – we who want to bring change are ‘running in’ while the adamant stand their ground. But positive change is indefatigable! It is unputdownable!

      The Constitution is no dictionary. But you can’t ideally run the country in ambiguity can you, or you can run it the way it is run today!
      And a dictionary in one hand is better than ambiguity in the other.

    2. Sharanya Bose

      Let us first, clarify our positions. Only then do the rebuttals make sense.
      Mine is that: Secularism, in political and legal practice has to mean the equal protection of all religions and the harmonious coexistence of all religions and atheism. It cannot be a distant definition, where you simply stay away from all matters religious. Why it has to be so is argued below.
      Yours, is that: being secular is equal to not pertaining to any religion. And that the protection of religious minorities (i.e secularism as we know it) should not be a part of media discussion. You have repeatedly hinted to a religious tint to the term secular, but failed to mention which religion is that? Also how does this tilt work? (Come on, out with it, let’s see the bias at work!) Again, I have addressed these later.
      Now for a rebuttal.
      Your first argument tries to link secularism with the equal protection of all religions. So what is wrong with equal protection of all religions? It may not be the dictionary meaning of the word but as I said before, legal terms are always interpreted differently from their dictionary meanings. You may have missed the e.g of Amicus Curiae or friend of the court. Amicus Curiae does not mean that the court is partying with that person or adding him/her on facebook. It broadly means a person who provides the court with valuable information, independent of the parties to the dispute. So legal terms can be defined well away from their actual meanings and that is what the constitution does with the word secular. (That too an implicit de facto definition, not de jure.)
      Law does not always follow the dictionary.
      Rather than invent a word for ‘”protecting all religions and making sure that they can coexist”, we merely use the word secular.
      So has the word been twisted? Yes. What does the twist mean? Equal protection of all religions and harmonious coexistence. That is neither wrong, nor harmful.

      Next, All the examples that you cited were not those of state intervention to begin with. They were abuses of state power and illegal. Illegal, according Merriam Websters means: not according to or authorized by law.
      So am I asking for the state to do something that is outside law? No. That would be stupid. I am asking for what is already there in the constitution: the fundamental rights. The fundamental right to practice, profess, preach any religion or to not follow any religion. According to you, the existence of this right, makes us non-secular, because it does not follow the dictionary. That is a pointless debate, because, you cannot argue against the need to ‘grant equal status to all religions in India’.

      Take the example of France. There the state strictly stays away form religious affairs and concerns itself with rights and freedoms, nothing more. What happens then? A few young Muslim women want to wear the Hijab, as per their beliefs and they are prohibited by law. Why? Because the law is ‘secular’. Here the law is the basis for religious discrimination; that too a secular, well intentioned law.
      The law needs to be flexible (not ambiguous). Otherwise it is counterproductive.

      I am not against change; but history makes it clear that demanding and predicting revolutions takes you nowhere. Not unless you define exactly what you want to change, how to go about it and all those details. That is what you have glossed over. Are development, the aspirations of a common man, independent of religion? In a country with massively unequal income and resource distribution, they are not. The only thing standing between, poverty of the minority and usurpation of resources by the majority is the constitution you call ambiguous and the secularism you call flawed. Besides, who are you to define the aspirations of a common man? Why can’t these aspirations be directly related to religion? In fact, they are and they will be. The simple aspiration of the victims of Godhra was to practice their religion without fear. The failure of one man to live up to the constitutional definition of secularism meant that those victims lay unprotected. That failure is the reason why they became victims, not common men and women of India.

      Democracy, secularism, liberty, etc. are simple words with big meanings. Greater minds than ours are at loggerheads about these. Clearly, you can’t have a single binding definition. Applied to the society, there will be interpretations. And there is nothing wrong with that. Also they, will be misused. This is not pessimism. We have to fight (rather debate) these on a case to case basis. We cannot however, ban all attempts at interpretation and purge all interpretations (any student of history will get the pun and the context here).
      And I think with that I will rest my case.

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